Fra Angelico's portrayal of Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ

Mary Magdalene
Directed by Garth Davis. Starring Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim. Running time: 120 minutes. 

This is the gospel about Mary Magdalene, according to Australian film director Garth Davis, whose movie about a prominent woman of the Gospel came to the big screen this month.

Mary was a courageous woman who defied the men of her family, intuitively recognised “the Rabbi” as a unique person, and was admitted by him to the company of the apostles. Mary and Jesus had a special understanding and affection; she understood his gospel of peace and love when all the Twelve could think of was overthrowing the Romans.

Jesus gave her pre-eminence, including the place on his right at the Last Supper (just as The Da Vinci Code said) and explicitly made her his witness. But after the Resurrection Peter and the others refuse to recognise her status and gifts. And yet, she says, as she strides off to join a sort of women’s march, “I will not stay silent; I will be heard.”

And so she is, as the film’s footnotes reveal. Although in 591 Pope Gregory the Great “claimed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute,” in 2016 Pope Francis affirmed her as an “apostle of apostles” – “that is,” the postscript tells us, “equal to the apostles.”

These are the bones of film, whose treatment of the Gospel record is arbitrary, to say the least, and which makes of Christ a mumbling guru. Two hours mostly taken up with Mary and Jesus staring into each other’s eyes, or trudging through the Galilean (actually, Italian) countryside with the dim-witted Twelve, is more than enough — even for a self-respecting feminist, one would have thought, though the film aims to please women of that persuasion. (It is hard to see how it would please men.)

The screenwriters, Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, take their cue from the Gnostic “Gospel of Mary”, a couple of fragmented texts which were discovered last century in Northern Egypt. With their secret revelations from Jesus to Mary and disputes among the apostles about her, these non-canonical writings of the 2nd Century AD, whose purpose was to transmit the teachings of a sectarian tradition, have been the subject of feminist scholarship in recent decades. One scholar even thought she had found a reference to Jesus’ “wife” in an ancient scrap of papyrus a few years ago, but it turned out to be a hoax.

Davis’ movie, thankfully, does not go that far, but its feminist assumptions about the role of women in the Church take us far beyond the biblical evidence.

What we know about Mary Magdalene from the canonical Gospels is impressive enough. She was one of several women who had been “healed of evil spirits and infirmities” and followed Jesus and the twelve, “providing for them out of their own means.” (Luke 8:1-3; Mark 16:9)

She is one of only three women named as standing by the Cross of Jesus on Calvary, the other two being Mary, his mother, and Mary, the wife of Clopas (John 19:25). Magdalene and other women observe the hasty burial of Jesus on the eve of the Sabbath and return “very early on the morning of the first day of the week” to anoint his body with spices. The tomb is empty. An angel (or “two men”) tells them that Jesus has risen and that they must go and tell the disciples. They are not believed.

John’s Gospel focuses on Magdalene as the one who discovers the empty tomb and then runs to tell Peter (and John) that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb…”. The two men run to the tomb, but Mary also returns there and is apparently alone, weeping when she meets Jesus. Once he speaks her name she recognises him – “Rabboni!” – and catches hold of him; but he tells her to go announce to his disciples that he is to ascend to his Father. Which she does.

That is what we know about Mary Magdalene, and it singles her out as the most significant woman in the Gospels after the mother of Jesus herself.

Did Pope Gregory the Great malign Mary Magdalene?

Scripture scholars in recent times have assured us that she is not the penitent sinner who, at the house of Simon the Pharisee, wept over Jesus feet, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and anointed them. (Luke 7:36-50). Nor is she Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who sat at the feet of Jesus as a friend and disciple, and also, shortly before his passion, anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair. (John 12:1-8)

However, it is not difficult to understand how these three Marys became confused in earlier centuries, especially since Luke’s first mention of Magdalene and her exorcism by Jesus comes straight after his beautiful portrait of the repentant sinner. And then there are the two anointings of Jesus by women who both wipe his feet with their hair.

There was already a history of ecclesiastical writers conflating at least two of these different figures by the time Gregory the Great remarked in a sermon: “This woman, whom Luke calls a sinner and John calls Mary, I think is the Mary from whom Mark reports that seven demons were cast out.” He evidently went on to specify that her characteristic sin was sexual.

But if Gregory identified Magdalene as a “prostitute,” he elsewhere held her up as a model of ardent love for Christ – as Christ himself praised the sinful woman:

“We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept; burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.”

In the light of this later homily, one should read his remarks on Magdalene, the sinner, as part of a commentary on sin and forgiveness, not, as feminist revisionism would have it, a stereotyping of her as “a symbol of feminine evil from which the world must be redeemed.” Popular devotion, including art, may have cemented her reputation as a sinner, but it was devotion, and to a saint.

Whatever doubt might remain about Mary Magdalene’s identity and significance – or the Church’s esteem for women — was cleared up by a decree of Pope Francis in June 2016 that elevated her liturgical memorial (July 22) to a “feast” – the same status as that of the Twelve Apostles — and highlighted the long-standing tradition of the Church of regarding her as an “apostle”.

“Given that in our time the Church is called to reflect in a more profound way on the dignity of Woman, on the New Evangelisation and on the greatness of the Mystery of Divine Mercy, it seemed right that the example of Saint Mary Magdalene might also fittingly be proposed to the faithful. In fact this woman, known as the one who loved Christ and who was greatly loved by Christ, and was called a ‘witness of Divine Mercy’ by Saint Gregory the Great and an ‘apostle of the apostles’ by Saint Thomas Aquinas [in the 13th century], can now rightly be taken by the faithful as a model of women’s role in the Church.”

Does this mean that Mary Magdalene has exactly the same status as that of the Twelve whom Jesus chose (including Judas’ replacement, Matthias) as the foundation stones of his Church, and that Garth Davis and his screenwriters are correct to depict her as a kind of thirteenth stone, or even the first? Does it mean that women should be admitted to the priesthood, because only then will their equality and leadership be properly recognised?

No. It means that Magdalene shows women – and men, including priests – what it means to be a Christian: to love Christ ardently and to witness to his great love and mercy by word and deed. In this sense every Christian is, or should be, an apostle – one “sent” by Christ to take his Gospel to the ends of the earth.

(One might add that, in spite of the decades-long practice of ordaining women in some Christian denominations, there is no evidence that the Gospel is gaining ground where women minister.)

Despite the almost impossible demands of playing the role of Jesus, and the lesser but still strenuous demands of portraying figures who loved him humanly while revering him as the Christ, the Son of God, perhaps there is a film to be made about Mary Magdalene. But it would need to be much more faithful to the scriptural sources than Davis’ effort, and much less influenced by tired feminist tropes about what constitutes women’s genius and leadership.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet